After dozens of desperate phone calls to veterinary clinics, Peggy Sheldon was eager to find help for her sick 7-pound puppy.
Not only was her local clinic in Northfield booked for weeks, but so were a series of others she called through the Twin Cities. Her dog had difficulty holding food and spraying blood while urinating, but emergency clinics were inundated with more serious cases.
The COVID-19 pandemic, which has created shortages in everything from toilet paper to restaurant staff, has also wreaked havoc on veterinary clinics, making pet care often hard to come by.
“I alternated between feeling angry and helpless,” said Sheldon, who spent weeks searching for answers, and then for a necessary operation, for Brie, her Teddypoo puppy. “[The clinics] were overwhelmed. “
Many vets in Minnesota and across the country are grappling with a backlog of cases that began early last year when the pandemic forced clinics, except for emergency services, to close.
“We were trying to preserve the PPE [personal protection equipment] for the human side of care, ”said Dr. Connie Sillerud, president of the Minnesota Veterinary Medical Association.
When the clinics reopened several months later, many restricted public access to their facilities, often forcing pet owners to stay in their cars while veterinary staff took the animal inside for treatment. . Veterinarians often contacted pet owners by phone after the exam.
“Usually you would have spoken to them during the exam,” Sillerud said. “So a visit that normally took 15 minutes turned into 35 to 40 minutes.” The result: Vets saw fewer patients in a day, making it difficult to manage a growing backlog of cases.
Twenty months later, many primary and emergency care clinics are still overwhelmed – a crisis that is forcing some pet owners to wait weeks for a primary care appointment and months for specialist care, a declared Sillerud.
Some vets say one of the reasons for the surge in demand is likely that more people have pets when they are squatting at home. But data from the Humane Society of Minnesota and a national veterinary organization indicates that a pandemic boom in companion animals may be overestimated.
The Humane Society of Minnesota typically has 15,000 to 18,000 adoptions per year, but that number has dropped to around 11,000 in 2020 – the first year of the pandemic, according to Dr Graham Brayshaw, director of animal services for the Humane Society. The number of adoptions this year will likely reach 10,000 or more, he said.
Nationally, the estimated 2.3 million animals adopted in 2020 from more than 4,000 shelters were the lowest number in five years, according to the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. The decrease is likely due to the fact that COVID restrictions slowed down the adoption process, fewer animals were available in part because the number of people who gave up pets was down and animal control was less active in picking up stray animals, according to the newspaper article.
As shelter adoptions have plummeted, Brayshaw said, some breeders may have received more calls for pets. “Desire has skyrocketed,” he said. “Everyone wanted a puppy, so a breeder who was making a good living is now booked for years or months.”
Meanwhile, demand for veterinary services likely increased as pandemic lockdowns meant some people who spent less money on restaurants, entertainment and travel had more discretionary income for their pets, Brayshaw said.
Being more at home also meant that some new and existing pet owners started seeing issues that were sometimes just normal animal behaviors.
“People were like, ‘Oh my god my dog is lethargic. He sleeps all the time,’ said Jodi Harrod, administrator of the South Metro Animal Emergency Care Hospital in Apple Valley. “But that’s what dogs do when you’re not home all the time.”
His clinic has also answered more calls for chronic illnesses that pet owners probably hadn’t noticed before.
When some pet owners couldn’t get in quickly enough to see their primary care vets, they lined up outside emergency clinics, Harrod said.
“Our activity at the emergency clinic tripled when the pandemic hit, and it didn’t stop,” she said. “Before the pandemic, we would have 15 cases on a weekday evening. Now we have 30 to 45. On weekends, the typical wait time for a non-critical [issue] lasts an average of four to six hours.
Emergency clinics often sort out cases – the worst are seen first. This often means that less urgent cases are not seen immediately, if at all.
Two years ago, providers at Lewis Small Animal Hospital at the University of Minnesota never imagined refusing a patient in need, said Mike Henson, the hospital’s acting director.
But now the intensive care unit is often at full capacity due to space and / or staff limitations.
“The fact that we cannot serve them immediately creates a significant moral stress which affects the veterinary teams,” said Henson.
During this time, some pet owners have become irritable.
Harrod said it’s understandable that people who care for a sick animal are desperate to take care of their animals. “But it gets to the point where people are downright rude to us,” she said. “They insult us. They swear. It gets old very, very quickly.”
Recently, a pet owner yelled at Harrod after noticing other dogs ahead of him to the clinic during his four hour wait. “I said, ‘You’re right. But if you noticed it, a lot of them didn’t come back,'” she told him. “We did a lot of euthanasia that night, and her dog was slightly injured.”
Sometimes his staff euthanized as many as 14 to 16 very sick animals in one evening, Harrod said. “It has an impact on the staff,” she said. “It’s very exhausting.”
Compassion fatigue, exhaustion and stress boiled beneath the surface even before the pandemic struck. “Then a lot of people got burnt out during COVID and left,” Sillerud said.
Some vets have retired prematurely as the shortage of front-office staff and veterinary technicians – an area dominated by women – worsened as the pandemic put more strain on family life. Low wages, long hours and weekend shifts have prompted some veterinary technicians and assistants in Minnesota to quit and take jobs with higher pay and more flexible hours.
In 2016, data showed the career span of a veterinary technician was five to seven years, but now it has fallen to four years, said Allen Balay, who chairs a committee examining the shortage of veterinary technicians for the Minnesota Veterinary Medical Association.
A demand for legislation is underway to authorize veterinary technicians in an attempt to increase their stature and pay in the hope of attracting and retaining them.
Meanwhile, the backlog of cases begins to shrink.
“It will slowly change,” Sillerud said. “It will probably take another six months to get back on track.”